Boredom had won and driven me out into the Old City with some of the usual suspects. Waking up on the couch in Diego’s scruffy flat was a painful experience. My mouth tasted foul. I had a crick in my neck and bruises on my ribs from things I had slept on. The tatty blanket covering me smelled of wet dog.
Somewhat unsteadily I got up and stumbled in the dimness through the chaos of empty bottles, abandoned drawings and dirty plates on the floor. I cracked my already throbbing head on a low beam. Swearing and staggering about I knocked a stack of sketch books off an occasional table and stubbed my toe on something heavy in the mess. Diego’s snoring, loud and untroubled, came from the next room. His elderly spaniel raised a quizzical eyebrow at me, sniffed derisively and settled himself back into his basket.
I left as quietly as I could and headed to the nearest public bath house to ease my aches and steam out the remains of an evening’s ale and Diego’s awful honey wine. The heat sank into my cramps and after an hour in the steam, gulping down bottles of water, my head felt almost normal, so I left and made my way to the Services Club for a work out and a sparring session.
The contest ebbed and flowed. My opponent was younger, lighter and not hungover. I had to counter these advantages with guile and strength. Shafts of sunlight flashed on the sword blades as we skirted each other, struck, parried and danced once more out of range. Eventually over confidence was my opponent’s undoing and I made the point. A moment later a great paw landed on my shoulder.
‘Saved by the bell,’ grinned Jimmy.
I looked at him, scowling through the mesh of my mask, ‘I am winning.’
‘Not for much longer. Get those stinking togs off and come with me.’
‘Your skills are required.’
I looked at him more carefully, then turned and made my apologies to my opponent. We headed for the changing rooms. ‘Another little theatrical event? Maybe a new portrait? Something in the altogether this time?’ My sarcasm was wasted.
‘It wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Nah. Something more interesting. More knife work than brushes. I’ve been looking for you half the morning,’ Jimmy growled as I opened the changing room door, ‘where’ve you been?’
‘Around. Here and there.’
He half turned, one massive eyebrow raised, ‘’Ere and there?’ I hope that ‘there’ didn’t mean somewhere you didn’t ought to be, like Liz Maida’s place for instance?’ He shook his head mournfully and left it. My relationship with Elizabeth had persisted, even after her marriage, in the intervals of my volatile involvement with Patience. I told Jimmy about the previous night’s activities, he was unsympathetic. ‘You’re expected for lunch and since his Grace does not like waiting for his food I suggest you hurry up.’
I ran through the shower and threw on outside clothes. Jimmy heaved my fencing kit into a laundry bag. The sabre went into my locker and in ten minutes I was ready. Jimmy looked me up and down, and shook his head again.
He led the way, nodding a greeting to the Porter as we left the Services Club. They had served in the same battalion back in the twenties and Jimmy was also a regular there. I followed former Regimental Sergeant Major James Berg through the polished double doors of the club’s entrance and into the sunshine. There was a lot more light when Jimmy had got through the portal. Sixty he might be, but he topped me by three inches and at least four stone of solid muscle. His cauliflower ears stuck out from under his uniform cap and his jacket strained a little round the neck. At his waist, an ancient and definitely non-uniform Gurkha kukri and inside the coat I knew would be a pair of equally non-standard issue automatics. Jimmy was the Bishop’s chief bodyguard, friend, eyes and ears. I was going to see the Boss and it was obviously urgent.
Jimmy led the way briskly up the slow rise toward the citadel and the cathedral precincts. The sun was warming the half-timbered fronts of the shops that faced on to the wide street. At this time of day the only traffic on the busy street was the pedestrians packing the pavement and the trams running on the rails in the middle of the road. One rattled past us up the hill. Four light single deck carriages snaking along at not a lot more than a good running speed. Gleaming brass work flashed against its dark green paint. Its bell jangled as the whine of its electric motor died away. Jimmy’s bulk parted the busy throng of shoppers with ease, I followed in his wake. The high street was the preserve of the bakers and the clothiers. We passed bakery windows full of cakes and biscuits, great racks of bread behind the counter. Hole-in-the-wall shops selling flat breads and salads to the lunchtime crowd. The scent of new leather wafted from the door of a cobbler’s shop as a customer entered.
At the top of the high street we paused a moment in front of the huge memorial bell tower. A covered stairway spiralled around its outside; people climbed to the viewing gallery at the top. Some stopped to look at the bronze friezes on the stairway walls that told the story of the plague as it had raged around the world from the start of the second quarter of the twenty first century. The great bell struck the half hour.
‘We’ll go in the side way,’ Jimmy jerked his head and I followed him across the square and through the open gates into Goldsmiths’ Lane. Quieter. Bright windows full of watches and gems. Above the shops the houses rose four storeys, shading even this wide street. At each end the road narrowed and passed through a gatehouse. These had double gates and overhanging upper storeys. The Goldsmiths’ Company were always ready for trouble. Between some of the shops wicket gates were open to the yards at the back; yards that went back all the way to the citadel walls.
Another sharp turn at the end of Goldsmiths’, took us along the tapering lane of Vintner Street and over a pedestrian bridge into one of the bastions of the citadel. We marched along the wide counter scarp to the bridge across the ditch to the inner ward. At the bottom of the broad ditch a deep rock cut channel made a wet moat. Sheep grazed on the banks that ran up to the face of the citadel’s walls. Casemates at each end of the wall section looked along and across the ditch. Further inside the turrets of two of the huge defensive guns gleamed dully.
We zig-zagged up a couple of streets, past military offices and barrack blocks and came to the side of the Bishop’s palace. Its original armoured ground floor, like the city itself, had been built over and a new, pleasant, three storey, stone range ran above it, around the outside of two large courtyards. At ground level it was still formidable, blank angled faces of massive masonry blocks and steel plate doors, albeit with cast bronze leopard head handles. Above, large windows let the light flood into the apartments and halls. We stepped into a narrow opening and, turning sharply to the right, walked along a short covered way to a small armoured door. The roof of the tunnel was lined with murder holes. Behind us a gun port defended the entrance. Jimmy opened the door. We entered an empty domestic corridor, tiled floor, dark, plain panelled walls. Up two flights of uncarpeted stairs and along an upper corridor we arrived at another small plain door. All was quiet. Most of the staff would be in the main hall or the domestic hall for the midday meal. Jimmy tapped and we waited. A gull called somewhere outside and then a loud chattering came from the end of the corridor. More chattering and clanking. Jimmy turned sharply, hand reaching inside his jacket. A small man in the Bishop’s livery came round the corner carrying a bucket and a mop. His face was wrinkled like a long kept apple, thin hair, long and slightly wild, stuck out. He had shaved but missed large patches, odd tufts of grey beard showed. He was nattering away to himself carrying on both sides of the conversation.
‘I like those trousers. Them’s good trousers.’
‘They are good, I likes green trousers. Only cost two guineas.’
He carried on as he started to mop the floor. Jimmy sighed, ‘Simple. Boss sees ‘im right.’
The door opened and the Bishop’s Secretary stood back to let us into the private office. ‘Were you seen Jimmy?’
‘Only Brian, we came up the back stairs, through the servants’ rooms.’
‘Good. Austen wants this to be kept as close as possible.’
We followed him into the Bishop’s study. He was already seated at a small table, looking out of the window, drumming his fingers. Several warming dishes were laid out next to him. The strong light etched his lean sunburned features and emphasized the prominent veins on the back of his hand. He turned his head and smiled as we came in. ‘Good afternoon Benedict’
‘Good afternoon your Grace. I trust you are well?’
‘As ever. Help yourselves all of you. Can’t stand cold food.’
With that he opened the first dish and began spooning a thick stew and dumplings into a bowl. His brisk, staccato, manner belied the clergyman’s clothing. Like his still erect and athletic physique, it was pure soldier. As a young man he commanded the City’s forces. He has ruled the City and the wider Commonwealth for more than fifteen years, like a latter day Lorenzo the Magnificent, by discreetly and efficiently manipulating the elected civil council and its executive committees.
‘The stew is excellent Sir,’ I ventured. All the time wondering why I was there. I didn’t normally rate a private lunch invitation.
‘Good. My brother sent the venison as a present, the cook had better not have ruined it.’ That wasn’t likely; his chefs were the best in the England. We ate in silence for some moments. ‘Robert here,’ the Bishop nodded at his Secretary, ‘doesn’t like what I’m going to ask you to do. Takes it as being a slight on his people. However,’ he paused, ‘one of his agents was hauled out of the river near the fish quays yesterday morning with his throat cut.’ There was another silence. A cloud drifted over the sun. Appropriate. ‘I need you to find out who killed him and what he knew that got him killed.’ I looked at him in silence. Murder was far more serious than any of the odd errands the Bishop had asked of me before. ‘Jimmy tells me that you have a wide and interesting acquaintance and that you know the Old City fairly well. The trouble is brewing down there.’
‘I see. Do you have any idea what kind of trouble?’
‘Drug running,’ broke in Robert crisply, his high nasal tone cut into my ears, ‘for certain. Probably a concerted attempt to take over the criminal activities in the Old City and possibly large-scale forgery. There’s been a steady increase in forged coin in circulation. The quality is good. Very good.’
‘This still sounds like a criminal matter, the Police…’
‘Are incapable of stopping this.’ He looked at me steadily along his long thin nose, his small blue eyes hidden behind steel rimmed glasses. ‘Their usual informants have dried up. A couple of the bigger mobsters have also died, fairly gruesomely even by the lights of that world, you may have seen the stories in the press. The only word we have is that this is not local. We suspect it is political. Agents of the Emirate. That is very definitely our business.’
‘Added to which,’ the Bishop added quietly, ‘the man pulled from the river had suggested that there might be connections back to our own people. We need an outsider. Robert is trying to find our mole, if there is one, but that will take time. This may be simple gang warfare down in the Old City, or it might be something else altogether. We need to know.’ I looked at him; tension deepened the lines around his eyes, ageing him.
Looking at them, despite the gravity of what they were saying, I couldn’t help the trivial thought that Robert looked rather like a mole himself, in his dark suit, with his snout, pot belly and slicked dark hair. Take one to catch one. ‘What information do you have? Let me see that and think it over…’
The Bishop looked up, ‘Jimmy, show Benedict the file.’ He sprang up and extended his hand, ‘Now, I must be on my way, the delegation from Normandy will be here soon. Robert.’ He nodded toward the door and the two of them left, the short, tubby Secretary hurrying to keep up with the tall soldier.
‘There you go.’ Jimmy pushed over a plain brown cardboard file from the Bishop’s desk, ‘Not a lot of it, lazy sod with paperwork.’
‘You knew him?’
‘Phil? Yeah. Met ‘im a few times. Good bloke. Liked rugby.’
I looked in the file. The personal stuff, Philip Vernon, age forty six, five feet ten tall, no distinguishing marks. Photo. Thin face, slightly balding, smiling, by the river, rowing boats in the background. Home address. Next of kin, a cousin in Cornwall. A copy of the police report on finding his body. Another on the current progress of their investigation, which was a long way of saying none at all.
Information on the results of his investigation was sparse. A list of places or people visited that ended ten days before his last swim. Some names marked with stars or ticks, mostly crossed off. A couple marked with stars were obviously pubs or bars, probably down in the docks, “The Saracen” and “The Elephant”. “El Camarero” might be a bar or club? “Seraph” maybe a place or a person?
Two names were circled. I recognised the name of one of the dead gangsters. A note on finding forged coins at a property owned by the deceased. He had removed them before the police arrived.
The final sheet, dated twelve days ago, was terse and untidily written. He had found two men waiting at the small apartment he had rented as his base of operations. The tell-tale on the flat’s front door had warned him of intruders. He had broken into a neighbour’s and used the fire escape to reach his window. Via a crack in the shutters he had seen them waiting behind the doors into the living room. He gave brief descriptions. He was emphatic he had not been followed there. Only his own people knew he was there. The pen had gone through the paper several times in the last sentence, he had underlined ‘only’ twice. The signature was large and bold.
‘Could he have been followed?’
‘If ‘e says ‘e wasn’t, ‘e wasn’t. He was good.’
I stared out of the window; motes of dust danced and tumbled in the shafts of light. The cathedral clock struck the three quarter. ‘It would make a change from the usual I suppose.’
Jimmy grunted, stood up, ‘Yeah. Just don’t go swimming.’
‘Cheeky bugger. You can keep that lot, we ‘ave copies. Come on I’ll let you out.’ He threw a large envelope at me for the file and led the way downstairs, locking the door behind us. I went around to the main court to make it seem I was about some of my usual business at the palace.
More coming next week. Extract from ‘Renaissance’ an adventure thriller by Jeremiah Hope. Copyright Jeremiah Hope 2019.